There is a strong Catholic attachment to the European Union. This is especially so in countries where the faith seems to be waning rapidly, such as Germany and Austria.
Such attachment is not surprising. The EU has strong Christian – indeed, Catholic – roots. There was a real optimism when it was founded that it could help to cement Christian democracy as well as keep the peace and foster economic cooperation. And not long after what is now called the EU was formed, Pope John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris, which called for international political institutions that would help promote the dignity of the human person and the global common good – a call that has been echoed on many occasions.
However, neither the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church specifically mention the European Union and so, as Catholics, we must avoid the reductionist fallacy that runs: “The Church’s teaching supports international political institutions; the EU is an international political institution; therefore the faithful must support the EU.”
The question for Catholics has to be: does the EU still promote human dignity and the common good? Political institutions are human constructions. They do not exist for their own sake and they do not exist forever. If they do not serve the purpose for which they are designed, we have every right to change them.
Without question, there are some ways in which the EU has promoted the common good – often by restraining nation states. Though many in Britain are nervous about migration, it has brought many benefits – not least to migrants themselves. On an everyday level, free movement is especially helpful to continental countries. And the “four freedoms” – movement of goods, services, capital and people – has helped cross-border economic and social cooperation between professions, universities and commercial organisations when, in the past, nation states might well have put up barriers.
But there are also negatives on the balance sheet. Pacem in Terris envisaged international institutions assisting nation states in ensuring that the states themselves could protect human dignity: in other words, the principle of subsidiarity, properly defined, was paramount. In the EU, the principle of subsidiarity is so perversely defined that it promotes, rather than provides a check on, the centralisation of power within the European institutions. Indeed, in one of the EU’s documents it is suggested that the principle of subsidiarity implies that action should only be taken at the local level where it proves to be necessary. It is little wonder that EU institutions just accrue more power to themselves.
And there have been concerted efforts to use the EU institutions to promote abortion as a human right – completely inverting any proper understanding of human rights. Not only that, economic outcomes in the EU are terrible: youth unemployment is nearly 25 per cent in the eurozone. This is a scar on Europe.
In this context, I believe that Catholics are entitled to judge whether the EU serves a useful purpose and whether meaningful reform is possible. Has the EU become so detached from its Christian roots that it is fatally adrift when it comes to judging matters to do with the protection of human life? Does it show an indifference to the young that undermines the common good and solidarity? Have its institutions become self-serving? Will a Britain outside the EU actually become more engaged with the rest of the world and remove those tariff barriers that are erected against the products of poor countries?
We should, though, be careful before throwing the baby out with the bathwater and should certainly not vote according to narrow personal or national interest. The EU is far from perfect, but then there is no perfection to be found in human institutions.
A case can be made that the EU has helped to promote liberty, democracy, economic freedom, stability and human rights in a number of countries, particularly in central and eastern Europe. Certainly, such countries do not have an ideal political environment, but it is almost certainly better than it would have been without the EU – and well-intentioned people in former communist countries want Britain to stay because they believe that the UK is a force for good in the EU.
If we remain in the EU, we must try to transform the institution for the better. And if we leave, we must promote an outward-looking and not an insular Britain. I have yet to make up my own mind on the matter. There is a strong Catholic case for sitting on the fence.
However, abstaining is not really an option. A judgment has to be made about whether, on balance, the EU contributes to the promotion of human dignity and the common good – when compared with the realistic alternatives.
Philip Booth is professor of finance, public policy and ethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and academic and research director at the Institute of Economic Affairs
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